Richard Harrington: The Transformer

Richard Harrington, president and chief executive officer of Thomson Corp., knows firsthand how information technology can be used as a powerful tool to change businesses. He has led the transformation of Thomson from a print publisher to a provider of integratedinformation services.

Thomson, at one point, published some 200 newspapers and trade publications in North America and the United Kingdom. But it has divested those properties—disposing of $8 billion of assets—and turned itself into an electronic information services provider to professionals in targeted market segments, such as Westlaw for legal research and First Call for financial research.

Harrington met challenges along the way, but he kept Thomson moving forward. Over the last five years, the company has seen profits grow from $561 million on revenue of $7.2 billon in 2001, to profits of $934 million on revenue of $8.7 billion in 2005.

Harrington, in an e-mail exchange with Baseline editor-in-chief John McCormick, talked about the company’s transformation, corporate information-technology challenges and the role of the CEO in information management.

You have said that the future will be all about information optimization. What do you mean by that?

Many professionals today are overwhelmed by the mass proliferation of information. The Internet, as you recall, was expected to be the great equalizer in terms of the public accessing information that had previously been reserved for professionals. And in some cases, there has been a true democratization of information. But at the same time, the Internet has brought with it a host of information-related problems as well. Knowledge workers are suffering from information overload.

Moreover, quantity of information does not equal quality or reliability. That’s a crucial concern if you are a lawyer, broker, accountant or doctor whose career depends on making well-informed decisions and giving accurate advice.
Thomson is a knowledge partner to its customers, which requires doing much more than merely aggregating information onto databases and distributing it electronically. It means understanding how professionals use specialized information and then offering solutions for information overload that include value-added content, software tools and services. Because Thomson has deep industry experience and customer knowledge, we can help our customers optimize information, maximizing its utility and business value.

Isn’t information quality an issue that all CEOs and all companies have to deal with—at least in some form? What lessons have you learned about how organizations deal with information?

My experience is that organizations often don’t realize the value of all the information they have. At Thomson, we seek to maximize the value of information as a strategic asset. Maybe the most important lesson we’ve learned is that if you want to make information work for you, you have to understand how work flows.
We have found it useful to observe what our customers are doing three minutes before they make an important business decision and three minutes after. Armed with this knowledge regarding their workflow, we can deliver precisely the information that customers need to make and follow through on their decisions—at exactly the moment they need it and in a form they can readily use. We tailor information and tools to flow seamlessly into the customer’s own I.T. system and daily routine. That enables customers to optimize the value of information.

Thomson’s business depends on information technology. How involved are you in the company’s information-technology strategy and purchasing decisions?

Together with our new CTO, Mike Wilens, I am highly involved with our technology strategy but I am less involved in purchasing decisions for the individual pieces of technology. I am very engaged with our overall technology strategy because it is integral to our business strategy.
Over the last 10 years, Thomson disposed of $8 billion of assets and spent $12 billion on acquisitions as we transformed our company. A lot of that acquisition activity had to do with expanding our skills, product portfolio and markets related to electronic solutions, software and services. As CEO, I led this transformation of our business model with the full support of Thomson’s chairman and board of directors, who realized that these investments were necessary to position Thomson for long-term success in the digital economy.

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